East Africa’s Faustian counter-terrorism pact
Despite the bold talk about South Sudan, there is little prospect of accountability.
On the day of the AU’s first ever summit on terrorism in Nairobi last September, a US drone hit a convoy at Barawe port, Somalia. Among those killed was Ahmed Abdi Godane, leader of the Islamist rebels of Al-Shabaab.
The US State Department hailed the strike as one of the most significant since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There were six African heads of state at the Nairobi summit, including Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. None of them had been aware of what the US was planning. They did not protest or seem surprised that they had not been consulted.
It was another example of how the US has shaped East Africa’s counter-terrorism policy.
Since the Al Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, there has been a Faustian pact.
The US military and intelligence services get a free pass to zap terrorist targets; incumbent regimes, even when they massacre their political opponents, get immunity from all but the mildest diplomatic criticism from Washington.
In theory, that should create a furore at the AU, where AU Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma says she is determined to break the dependence on foreign powers.
The AU is set to hold its first summit of this year on 30-31 January in Addis Ababa, but there are no signs of it breaking free from this dependence.
Germany is finishing a new operations centre for the AU Peace and Security Commission next door, and foreign states consistently pay more than 50% of the AU’s budget, while dues from many members states are in arrears.
Meanwhile, the AU’s list of crises is multiplying: the Sahel, Nigeria and Cameroon, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Discussion of the Boko Haram threat is likely to stay off the AU agenda at President Goodluck Jonathan’s insistence. There will be public talk of progress and private nudging on political deals in Mali and CAR.
There will also be some worried discussion – especially among the six or so leaders trying to change their countries’ constitutions to get an extra term in power – about conditions in Burkina Faso after the October 2014 overthrow of Blaise Compaoré.
Some of the toughest talk will be on East Africa.
In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir wants to expel the hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur after it had the temerity to try to investigate claims that government forces and their militia allies committed mass rapes as they stepped up attacks.
Khartoum’s blocking of a credible investigation by the AU/UN throws down the gauntlet to Dlamini-Zuma, usually a doughty defender of women’s rights.
South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki is struggling to get progress in talks between Bashir’s National Congress Party and its increasingly confident political and military opponents.
With no deal between ruling party and opposition, many parties will boycott the April elections, and Bashir will declare himself elected president again.
Deadlock also reigns in the sporadic South Sudan talks after fighting broke out in December 2013 between supporters of President Salva Kiir and those of the sacked vice-president Riek Machar.
Since then, more than 50,000 people have been slaughtered, two million chased from their homes and four million face severe food shortages.
Despite bold talk about sanctions and investigations for atrocities in South Sudan, there is little prospect of accountability.
East Africa’s leaders stand squarely behind the Kenya government’s approach to political killings: in its case, stridently oppose the right of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and try those deemed most responsible for the post-2007- election deaths and block all other local attempts to bring the errant politicians to justice.
Their fellow leaders have made Kenyatta and William Ruto, elected as president and deputy president after their ICC indictment for crimes against humanity, regional heroes for their campaign against the court.
Uganda’s Museveni, who asked the ICC to arrest Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, is now one of the court’s most vociferous opponents.
Does this signal serious African nationalist intent? For all the rhetorical bluster, East African leaders remain willing and subservient clients to their Western patrons.
China comes into the region not so much as a counterbalancing force but as a new addition to the existing set of foreign patrons. Nowhere is this contradiction sharper than when it comes to talk of terrorism.
Having failed to deliver economic and political development to its diverse peoples over the past 50 years, Africa’s ruling class is now confronted with a force determined to destroy the existing order. Its response has been mixed.
Eight years ago, East African governments sent in troops to combat the Al-Shabaab insurgency in Somalia, and they now control most of the country’s cities and big towns.
A government has been installed in Mogadishu, and national elections are due in 2016 for the first time since the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.
This military intervention ordered by the AU is a rare example of regional cooperation for a collective cause. But this case raises the bigger question about whether African leaders are really running their own security strategy.
With the acquiescence of Nairobi after the 1998 embassy bombings, the US established a naval base on Manda Island on Kenya’s north coast to prosecute the war against Al Qaeda in East Africa.
It shared intelligence with Kenyan police and let them do the neighbourhood swoops, arbitrary arrests, secret renditions and extrajudicial killings – almost all targeting Muslim communities. This has inserted grievance politics into a security problem.
Resentment at the state for religious targeting and economic marginalisation are contributing to the radicalisation of young people on the coast.
Years of covert funding from Saudi Arabia of Wahhabi proselytisers did much of the ideological groundwork. This pattern is recurring from the Horn across to the Sahel.
It will be central to many discussions by anxious officials at the AU summit in Addis, few of which will surface in public debate or resolutions. Nor are these exchanges likely to result in a credible new strategy based on local realities.
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